Guest Blogger

Wide Open Spaces #alsc22

Just as folks turned to backyards and public parks during COVID lockdowns, libraries had to shift their focus outdoors during building closures and beyond. Michelle Willis from Scotch Plains Public Library (NJ) demonstrated in “Beyond Storytime: Library Programs the Snap, Crackle, and Pop” with Denise Lyons (SC) that moving programs outdoors can be more than a solution – it can enhance them. And in “Black Kids Camp Too, Don’t They?” Michelle Martin stressed the need for more representation of Black children and families (and BIPOC at large) in wild, outdoor spaces. 

“The reaction to a problem has blossomed”

This quote was in reference to the incredible Storytime Adventures developed by the Scotch Plains Public Library. In turning to their township’s Recreation Department for programming space, they looked at the diverse types of outdoor experiences offered and wondered about how to engage with them in storytime. I was fascinated by the way they embraced these differences and modeled ways to engage with different outdoor spaces:

  • In a park with a nature trail, following a read aloud the attendees go on a walk and collect items of interest, then return to a pavilion to make art with them.
  • In a park that primarily houses a large playground, they embraced the messy activities they wouldn’t be able to do in an indoor programming space and made a DIY bubble mix and wands.
  • In a park comprised of several sports fields, they channeled the athletic energy into a read aloud followed by large motor activities like stepping stones, hula hoops, and tunnels.
  • In a park lined by a long walking track, a passive “story stroll” was complemented by a scavenger hunt to encourage engaging with the outdoor space.

These programs have proved so popular that they are increasing the frequency despite building reopening. I loved how this setup shows kids that reading doesn’t just happen in a sterile setting. It also provides the backdrop of a familiar routine and staff while interacting with nature in a (possibly) new way.

Representation in the great outdoors

When holding outdoor programming – or even if you want to highlight the outdoors from your own storytime room – showcasing non-white characters in those stories is vital. Michelle Martin reminded us of several instances in recent memory where white people have threatened POC while trying to enjoy the same wild spaces.

However, the framework she created around books showcasing Black children in wild spaces asserts that when provided with support and safety (as well as the economic means to secure things like gear or transportation) they can reap the benefits of nature long denied to them. These benefits include embracing natural spaces, belonging, feeling agency in nature, and a desire to return.

I think it goes without saying that encouraging feelings of belonging, agency, and a desire to return is something we should want for all children. That’s why it’s so important to showcase books with BIPOC in nature. That representation can promote the safety and support needed to have those experiences for Black kids. Maybe more importantly, white children need to be exposed to the idea of non-white people existing in nature. We must combat harmful ideas that wilderness is a space that exists only for the recreation of white space.

Guest contributor Eleanor (Ellie) Richardson (she/her/hers) is a Youth Services K-3 Specialist at Arlington Heights Memorial Library (IL). She is currently finishing up her MLIS degree (so close!) and is excited for the opportunity to learn from her peers at ALSC Institute 2022. The aspect she’s most looking forward to is meeting other youth services professionals to share their passions and get inspired. Ellie is a self-proclaimed public transit fanatic, so when she’s not at the conference you’ll likely see her riding around on KC’s buses and streetcars. 

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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